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Thursday, October 12, 2006

INTERVIEW WITH KATE MOSSE

Published in the Book Review newspaper KNIZHNAYA VITRINA in April 2006

Elena Dedukhina: You have been asked about it many times, of course, yet, for the majority of Russian readers it will be a new chapter, because only in recent years the authors who were nominated to the Orange in the past have at last attracted the Russian Publishing Companies’ attention, and we have got the opportunity to be acquainted with their works translated into Russian. So, how did the idea of the Orange Prize for Fiction come to you in the first place? And how difficult it was to put it into effect?

Kate Mosse: There was a shortlist for the Booker Prize in 1991 that had no female authors on it at all. It was not deliberate, of course – the judges had just chosen the books they most enjoyed! But they had not noticed there were no women on the list. Also, many male and female publishers, agents, authors and journalists commented on how there would be a big outcry if the list had been published with no men on it all!

Prizes are important in bringing new authors and new titles to a wider readership. Since, at that stage, 60 per cent of novels published were written by women, it seemed odd that women didn’t appear more regularly on the shortlists of literary prizes.

So, the Orange Prize was conceived. We wanted to celebrate international fiction written by women throughout the world, to introduce outstanding work by women to male and female readers and also to use the publicity generated by the prize to sponsor a wide range of educational, literacy and research initiatives.

We spent several years in research and finding a sponsor. Finally, at the end of 1995, the mobile telecommunications company Orange – who were just launching in the UK – came on board and the Orange Prize for Fiction was launched in 1996. It has been a long and happy partnership that has endured ever since.


Elena Dedukhina: How did the British world of literature take it in?

Kate Mosse: Publishers, literary agents, booksellers and librarians thought the Orange Prize for Fiction was a good idea from the very beginning. However, some sections of the press were very hostile and a few authors – worried that it would suggest women writers were second class citizens in the world of literature – expressed concerns.

However, once the first shortlist was announce in 1996 – and everybody saw the wonderful six books, all of which had been overlooked by the other major prizes (both from established and new writers) – opinion began to turn.

In 2005, when we were celebrating our 10th Orange Prize for Fiction – and there were many articles in the media – there was nobody who was prepared to speak against the OPF. Everybody said it had been an excellent idea and had succeeded in its goal of promoting outstanding fiction by women to male and female readers. The fact that OPF books are being translated into Russian – and many other languages – is proof of that!

Elena Dedukhina: The prize was initially set for the fiction written exclusively by women to promote literature that “was not being brought to the attention of male and female readers who’d appreciate them.” Have you ever had the feeling that the Prize has a bit overdone since then – nowadays there seem to be more female names in the world of literature than male’s?

Kate Mosse: No. There were always more books published that were written by women rather than written by men. That has not changed. The concern was that even though women writers historically made up the majority of authors publishing fiction, the literary prizes did not seem to value their work as highly as their male counterparts, hence the disproportionately small number of women – given the figures of male/female novels published – that made it to the shortlists of other literary awards.

Elena Dedukhina: In comparison with other Prizes the Orange doesn’t have any restrictions for the works – it could be the mainstream literature, thriller, detective story or romance... What is the main feature the book has to have in order to be nominated to the Orange apart from being written by woman?

Kate Mosse: It is important to understand that there is no such thing as the ‘best book’. There is only the book that the particular group of judges, of a particular award, in a particular year enjoy the most. We therefore simply ask our judges to choose books that they would recommend and books that make the hair on their neck stand on end! We have only three words as a guideline of which books to longlist (20) then shortlist (6): accessibility, originality and excellence. Each of these three qualities is equally important.

Elena Dedukhina: Do you have your own favourites among the nominees of different years? Who are they and why?

Kate Mosse: I chaired the judging panel in the first year (1996), but other than that my job is promote the OPF in general terms and each year’s selection of novels. It is important that only the judges express their opinions about the books they have chosen.

Elena Dedukhina: Nine British authors against eight Americans, two Australians and one Tahitian in the long-list this year. Does it mean that British talents have become scanty so that there is a pressing need to reinforce the nominee candidates for the Prize by the foreign writers who write in English, otherwise the competition will look unconvincing?

Kate Mosse: No. This is an average to high number of British authors on the list actually. If you look back through the longlists over the past eleven years, you will see sometimes there are fewer British authors. The judges do not pay attention to the nationality of the author when they are reading. They simply choose the novels they enjoy the most. Only when the 20 books for the longlist are chosen do we realize what the combination of nationalities is. For the Orange Prize, nationality or country of residence are completely irrelevant.

Elena Dedukhina: For the second time Ali Smith and Zadie Smith were nominated to the same prize at the same time. We saw in British press the titles like “Smith vs Smith: Battle rejoined...” Has it been done on purpose to spur up an interest in the world of literature and make the competition look tougher? Or it is happened out of pure coincidence?

Kate Mosse: As above, the judges choose the books they like the best. That is their responsibility. They do not ‘construct’ the list by choosing people for marketing or publicity purposes at all. Because of the nature of publishing cycles, every year there are authors who have appeared on the list together before. It is unavoidable. The reason the press focussed on Smith v Smith was, first, because it was a quick and easy story (!) and second because they had recently been on the same Man Booker shortlist in 2005 – where neither of them won.

Elena Dedukhina: What if this “battle” will divert the judges’ attention from other authors, especially newcomers?

Kate Mosse: It is how the literary press works in the UK to try to spice up the stories. The longlist is promoted as a complete list of 20 books. Libraries throughout the UK buy the entire longlist and promote to their borrowers, bookshops promote the entire list. Apart from when the list is first announced in the press – when journalists do tend to focus on one or two authors – readers simply enjoy the wide range of novels chosen. Every year there is this sort of manufactured press story, but it makes no difference to either the sales of the other books or the attention given to the list as a whole.

Elena Dedukhina: Don’t you think that if the main goal of the Orange has been to promote women’s writing, it would be fairer to promote more new names rather than already established and well-known?

Kate Mosse: The aim of the Orange Prize is celebrate international fiction writing by women and promote outstanding novels to male and female readers. We have a new award – launched to celebrate 10 years in 2005 – which honours first time fiction writers (of novels, short story collections of novellas). It’s called the Orange Award for New Writers and is there to support promise, potential and imagination in up-and-coming writers.

The OPF was never intended to ignore established names. Just because a female author (or indeed male author) is well known, it does not mean at all that they have big sales. Every year, those books shortlisted for the Orange Prize – and especially the winning novel – go on to sell many more books that they had before reaching the shortlist. Many of the winning novels are by established writers. For example, We Need to Talk About Kevin – which won in 2005 – is Lionel Shriver’s 7th Novel. She was an established author, but yet the novel had only sold approximately 2000 copies. It has now sold nearly 250,000 copies in the UK alone! That uplift in sales means many more readers. That’s what the OPF is about.

Elena Dedukhina: Do you have any plans to extend the Prize to the level (like the Booker) when it’s going to be recognized as the International Prize for Fiction written by women?

Kate Mosse: It already is! We have anecdotal evidence from many different countries – for example Nigeria, Haiti, New Zealand – that the existence of the OPF leads to more publishing opportunities for women in those countries. OPF shortlisted and winning books do better in America, Canada and many other countries because of having been chosen.

Elena Dedukhina: Do you personally read all the nominations to the Orange before or after the winner is announced?

Kate Mosse: No. I am not a judge – except for 1996 – so it would be inappropriate for me to be involved in the selection process. However, once the longlist is chosen, I then read that selection of 20 books so that I have a sense of what’s been chosen and so that I can effectively promote the list as a whole in the media and press.

Elena Dedukhina: How do you feel when an author or a book you like most didn’t get even into a shortlist not to say became a winner?

Kate Mosse: My role, as Co-Founder & Honorary Director of the Orange Prize for Fiction, is to promote the list as a whole as the choice of our annual judging panels (which are different every year – nobody judges more than once). Truthfully, though, I rarely feel that my favourites are not there. The OPF submission process is very comprehensive, which means that all books that are eligible are submitted and the choice is always very wide. Besides, like all other readers, I like to hear about new authors who I’ve not read before, as well as to read the book of writers I already admire and enjoy.

Elena Dedukhina: The following authors from the Orange list have recently been translated into Russian, though not necessary those works were the winners: Rose Tremain, Stella Duffy, Toni Morrison, Audrey Niffenegger, Ann Donovan, Zadie Smith, Joanne Harris, Sue Monk Kidd, Joyce Carol Oats, Lily Prior, Rachel Seiffert, Sarah Waters, Ali Smith, Trezza Azzopardi, Jeanette Winterson, Zadie Smith, Tracy Chevalier, Beryl Bainbridge, Ann Patchett, Deirdre Purcell, Christina Garcia, Annie Proulx, Linda Grant, Laurie R.King. Who do you think is unjustly absent from that list?

Kate Mosse: It is fantastic to see such a wonderful range of writers being translated into Russian and therefore enjoyed by new readers. I’m surprised that Lionel Shriver, last year’s winner, isn’t on the list. Also, that the 2004 winner Andrea Levy– and winner of the Best of the Best (to celebrate the first ten OPF winners in Autumn 2005) – is missing. They are both fabulous authors and I think Russian readers would enormously enjoy their work.

Elena Dedukhina: Your ‘Labyrinth’ has recently been translated into Russian. I’m looking forward to see your other books, ‘Eskimo kissing’ and ‘Crucifix Lane’, translated into Russian too. However, I couldn’t help noticing that between the first and the next book of yours there is a gap in several years. Why?

Kate Mosse: I am actually focusing particularly on my fiction writing at present. My latest novel LABYRINTH – a timeslip adventure quest novel set half in medieval and half in contemporary France - was published in the UK last July! It was on the hardback fiction bestseller list for 14 weeks, has been at the top of the paperback fiction bestseller list since the beginning of 2006, is currently on the New York Times bestseller list – as well as making the bestseller lists in Italy, Germany, Holland, New Zealand, Australia and Canada. It is being translated into 35 languages (including Russian, Estonian, Latvian, Slovenian, Japanese and French). I am currently working on another novel, SEPULCHRE, which I will finish by the end of 2006.

The reason for the gap between my novels is simply that my broadcasting commitments – I present radio and television arts programmes for the BBC – and a three-year period as Executive Director of Chichester Festival Theatre, not to mention my work with the Orange Prize – meant that I simply was unable to put my own writing first. Since 2000, however, that has changed and now writing is my first job!

Elena Dedukhina: Would you like to see your own book to be nominated one day for the Orange? Is it possible at all?

Kate Mosse: No, it would be completely inappropriate. LABYRINTH was eligible to be entered for the OPF, but as the Co-Founder & Honorary Director of the Prize, it would be unethical. In the media in the UK, any employee (paid or otherwise) is not allowed to enter a competition sponsored or run by the company. I therefore applied the same rule to myself and my novel was not entered.

Copyright © Elena Dedukhina 2006

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